J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Moretti’s Mia Madre

Film directors are usually control freaks. It just goes with the territory. That’s great for their auteurist visions, but not so hot for personal relationships. Margherita’s mother still loves her anyway, even in periods of ill health and maybe not quite 100% sound mind. The headstrong daughter should probably start preparing for the inevitable, but she has a didactic art film to finish first in Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Vittorio was the closest thing Margherita had to a muse, but that did not stop her from dumping him midway through their latest shoot. Barry Huggins, a famous American character actor supposedly fluent in Italian will soon be joining the production, but he most definitely will not be taking Vittorio’s place. Frankly, she is far too preoccupied with her mother Ada’s health, but so far she has left most of the hard work to her older brother Giovanni. She is also trying to be a reasonably responsible mother to her Latin-flunking, Vespa-yearning daughter Livia, but it does not come natural to her.

Unfortunately, developments on the set push Margherita to the verge of a nervous breakdown. The high maintenance Huggins might understand Italian, but his fluency is iffy and his memorization of lines is even more suspect. Plus, just about every technical problem imaginable threatens to rob the world of another overwrought melodrama about unionized strikers.

Mia Madre’s acute attention to personal crises definitely makes it feel like a Nanni Moretti film, but it is hard not to hear Georges Delerue’s soaring themes from Truffaut’s Day for Night welling up in the back of your head. Considering the ways the two films parallel each other (socially awkward, semi-autobiographical filmmakers whose sanity and latest productions are nearly undermined by untimely tragedy), it is hard to imagine Moretti wasn’t engaging with the Oscar winner on some level.

Be that as it may, Mia Madre is a fine work with an unusually high quotient of emotional truth. Margherita Buy takes another slyly subtle star turn as Margherita the namesake director, proving she is one of the best in the business. John Turturro is quite a good sport hamming it up as Huggins (who else could he be lampooning, but himself?), yet when we least expect it, he and Moretti will irreversibly humanize the Yankee prima donna. Moretti the helmer-thesp (who has not infrequently been cast in other people’s movies) oozes dignity as the wise, soul-weary Giovanni. He just can’t help being charismatic on-screen. However, Giulia Lazzarini is doing standard TV movie-central casting stuff as the spirited but slowly fading Ada.

Mia Madre is a very nice film, but Day for Night is a masterwork. That is an unfair comparison, but Moretti seems to invite it. Nevertheless, Buy follows up her wonderfully understated turn in the grossly underappreciated A Five Star Life with another notably smart and mature performance. Recommended for patrons of Italian cinema and fans of Turturro, Mia Madre opens this Friday (8/26) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.

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